Building coral reef resilience through assisted evolution

Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2015 Feb 24;112(8):2307-13. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1422301112. Epub 2015 Feb 2.


The genetic enhancement of wild animals and plants for characteristics that benefit human populations has been practiced for thousands of years, resulting in impressive improvements in commercially valuable species. Despite these benefits, genetic manipulations are rarely considered for noncommercial purposes, such as conservation and restoration initiatives. Over the last century, humans have driven global climate change through industrialization and the release of increasing amounts of CO2, resulting in shifts in ocean temperature, ocean chemistry, and sea level, as well as increasing frequency of storms, all of which can profoundly impact marine ecosystems. Coral reefs are highly diverse ecosystems that have suffered massive declines in health and abundance as a result of these and other direct anthropogenic disturbances. There is great concern that the high rates, magnitudes, and complexity of environmental change are overwhelming the intrinsic capacity of corals to adapt and survive. Although it is important to address the root causes of changing climate, it is also prudent to explore the potential to augment the capacity of reef organisms to tolerate stress and to facilitate recovery after disturbances. Here, we review the risks and benefits of the improvement of natural and commercial stocks in noncoral reef systems and advocate a series of experiments to determine the feasibility of developing coral stocks with enhanced stress tolerance through the acceleration of naturally occurring processes, an approach known as (human)-assisted evolution, while at the same time initiating a public dialogue on the risks and benefits of this approach.

Keywords: adaptation; climate change; microbial symbionts; selective breeding; transgenerational acclimatization.